Celebrated environmental historian returns to teach at FES

Twenty years after his first visit to the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, India’s foremost environmental historian is back at Yale.

The author of more than 20 books, environmental historian Ramachandra Guha has spent parts of the intervening two decades at Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley. But it was at Yale that Guha gained momentum after finishing his postdoctoral work in the 1980s, and he has returned to campus this year as a visiting professor. This semester, Guha is teaching “Global Environmentalism” at the Environment School, and he said the focus of the class, in light of his background, will focus on ecological debates in a manner distinct from that of other courses at Yale.

“I am an environmental historian, which means that I am looking at the environmental debate not as a scientist but from a social and political perspective,” Guha said.

The teaching environment has consistently proven challenging in the United States, Guha said, citing a greater passion for classroom debate among students at Yale than he has seen in other parts of the world. But considering the gravity of the issues at hand, he said, he welcomes the challenge.

Among the critical environmental policy debates Guha pointed to was the protection of endangered species in developing countries, such as tigers in India, at the expense of indigenous peoples living in the animals’ habitats. The middle ground, he said, has not yet been adequately explored.

“Yes, the tigers have a right to live in their habitat, but we must take into account the equally legitimate rights of the poor indigenous people,” Guha said. “We are asking if there are environmental solutions based on sound science that are also socially just. The indigenous peoples need to be involved in the management of and share in the profits coming from the protection of the land that was originally theirs.”

The intersection of social justice and environmental policy makes Guha’s course something of an anomaly at Yale, but Environment School students said the scope of his seminar is truly unique among the University’s offerings.

“In a lot of my classes, we’ve looked at conservation efforts on different continents, including Asia, Africa and Australia,” Susan Marriott FES ’07 said. “The classes that only address environmental issues in the U.S. are mainly those that deal with law and policy.”

Emily Enderle FES ’07, the teaching fellow for Guha’s class this semester, said his return to Yale displays a commitment on the part of the Environment School to diversify its faculty. Cornelia Pinchot FES ’08 said Guha’s effort to fuse environmental concerns with social justice reflects the growth of a broader movement among conservationists to aid the poor as well as the environment.

Guha, too, emphasized the breadth of his disciplines, but he said the focus of his course will be just as broad.

“What makes [“Global Environmentalism”] different from most others like it is that it is global and comparative,” Guha said. “For example, early Indian environmentalists looking for alternatives to Western industrialism were inspired by Gandhi.”

Guha said he has a longstanding interest in Gandhi, and next semester he will teach “Mahatma Gandhi and the 20th Century,” which will be offered through the History Department.

“Best known, perhaps, as a nationalist, Gandhi was also a social reformer and a religious thinker,” Guha said. “His life spans all the major debates of the 20th century.”

Guha received his doctorate in sociology from the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta. His wife, a Yale School of Art graduate, has visited her husband and alma mater but lives in India with their children.

Comments